PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Red, Yellow, Now Green; Budget Action On Horizon

Just in time for Memorial Day weekend, Gov. Wolf Friday announced all remaining counties in the state will move to the Yellow Phase of his reopening plan and 17 counties will move to the Green Phase.

The counties moving to yellow on May 29 include Dauphin, Franklin, Huntingdon, Lebanon, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, and Schuylkill.

The 17 counties moving to the Green Phase on May 29 include Bradford, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Montour, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango and Warren.

Counties that remain in Red Phase on May 29 and are expected to move to the Yellow Phase by June 5 include Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton, Montgomery, and Philadelphia.  Read more here.

Gov. Wolf also issued guidelines for reopening real estate offices and summer camps and bathing places, recreational activities for children last week.  

Of course, Gov. Wolf did all that after vetoing Republican bills to gut his COVID-19 reopening plan, take decisions about reopening local businesses away from him and give it to county officials and reopen businesses ranging from pet grooming, too real estate offices, to manufacturing operations.  Read more here.

House Republicans did attempt to override Wolf’s veto of one of their bills covering pet grooming and manufacturing– House Bill 2388, but fell 21 votes short of the two-thirds needed on May 20. Read more here.

In a nod to bipartisanship, Gov. Wolf did sign legislation authorizing curbside sale of mixed drinks [Read more here] and legislation to give early checks to seniors and others qualifying for the state Property Tax and Rent Rebate Program [Read more here].

Of course the vetoes didn’t sit well and Republicans are now taking advantage of a provision in the state law authorizing a Governor to declare an emergency that also authorizes the Senate and House to terminate an emergency by passing a concurrent resolution.

House Republicans moved concurrent House Resolution 836 (Diamond-R- Lebanon) providing for the termination of Gov. Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster emergency out of Committee Thursday and positioned it for a final vote next week.  Read more here.

The Senate is now coming back to session next week, one could guess to also vote on the concurrent resolution.

            While Republicans are arguing the emergency will end once they pass the resolution, the Governor’s Office is pointing to a provision in the state constitution that requires presenting the resolution to the Governor for his action– to sign or veto.  (Read more here about the Governor’s emergency powers.)

            Court Again Refuses To Override Wolf’s Emergency Authority

            On May 21, a federal court judge refused a request by a House Republican candidate and business owners from Perry County to override Gov. Wolf’s authority to adopt emergency business shutdowns and the stay at home order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Read more here.

So far, the Governor has won the other court fights waged against his directives. The state Supreme Court has so far backed his use of executive power to battle the virus. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition by a group of western Pennsylvanians who sought to overturn Wolf’s directives.

            Poll Position

            Yet another poll was published last week saying 64 percent of those polled supported Gov. Wolf in his efforts to respond to the COVID-19 emergency, down from the results in the 70s in previous polls.  Read more here.

            President Trump earned a 43 percent level of support.

Cautious Reopenings

            With all the talk about getting businesses back open quickly, the reality on the ground seems to be more cautious so far–

Lights Turning On At More Stores In Pittsburgh-Area, But A Lot Of Thought Went Into That Decision

Elizabethtown Council Doesn’t Back State Republicans’ Move To Reopen

Some Faith Leaders Say They Aren’t Ready To Gather In Sanctuaries

Child Care Centers In PA: Bellwether For How Tricky It Will Be To Fully Reopen Economy

Pittsburgh Will Revamp Its Streets As Economy Begins To Reopen

What Rights Do Lehigh Valley Workers Have As Businesses Reopen  And COVID-19 Lingers?

Playbook For Reopening Schools: Face Shields, Staggered Schedules, Temp Checks

PIAA Executive Director Cautiously Optimistic For Fall Sports

If Lancaster County College Students Return In The Fall, It Still Won’t Be A Return To Normal

— Editorial: Stick With The Plan On Coronavirus

— Editorial: We Choose To Be On The Side Of Safety; Thankfully, Many Lancaster County Business Owners Do, Too

            Other Actions

            State government took these other actions last week related to the pandemic–

Dept. Of Health Releases Data On COVID-19 Cases By Long-Term Care Facility [controversial]

Uninsured Pennsylvanians Can Access Free COVID-19 Testing During The Pandemic

Gov. Wolf Stresses Roles Of PEMA, National Guard In Pandemic Response

PA National Guard Called In To Assist With Testing At Berks County Nursing Home

Dept. Of Labor & Industry Warns Of Unemployment Scams, Urges Citizens To Report Fraud

PA Gaming Control Board Releases Casino Reopening Protocols

Dept. of Corrections Announces Plans To Reopen Prisons To Visitors

Gov. Wolf Modifies Executive Order On Foreclosure, Eviction Suspensions

PA State Police Grants 2nd Extension To License To Carry Firearm Permits

Guidance Available For People Needing FBI Background Checks During Stay-At-Home, Reopening Phases

Liquor Control Board Issues Guidance To Licensees On New Drinks-To-Go Law

Dept. Of Human Services Provides Update On Public Assistance Data Trends

            Budget Action

            Judging from a meeting notice by the Senate Appropriations Committee, there will be action in both the House and the Senate on an FY 2020-21 General Fund budget bill the week of May 26.   Read more here.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has listed House Bill 2387 (Saylor-R-York), the General Fund appropriations, and 15 other preferred appropriations bills for action at a meeting on May 26. 

Those bills are now in the House, so House action must be anticipated.

Rumor has it, Senate and House Republicans are going to pass a short-term budget using the numbers from FY 2019-20 as a placeholder until the July revenue numbers come in.  The deadline for filing tax returns was delayed to July 15 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and with it the revenue the state receives.

Then the Senate and House will get to work on the “real” budget some time after that.

Revenue Estimates

The Independent Fiscal Office will provide a revised revenue estimate for FY 2019-20 and its first real FY 2020-21 revenue estimate at a briefing on May 26.

On April 8, the IFO projected a $2.7 to $3.9 billion reduction in revenues for the current and next year as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown.  Read more here.

Senate and House hearings in February, before the pandemic broke, found state programs had an $800 million deficit for the current fiscal year because of the usual under estimates of program costs.

Of course, lawmakers and interest groups are seizing on the newest budget crisis to push everything from video gambling in bars and restaurants to legalizing marijuana to fill the budget hole everyone agrees will be big.

Other Budget Impacts

Information came out last week about other COVID-19-related budget impacts to schools, agencies and communities–

Study Suggests Dozens Of PA Towns Will Soon Qualify As Distressed Municipalities

Allegheny County Regional Asset District Makes 20% Cut In Grants Due To Sales Tax Hit

Philly Schools Issue Call To Action On Education Funding

Allentown Expects Nearly $8 Million Revenue Shortfall, And It Could Get Worse

Council Skeptical Of Philly Mayor’s Plan To Offset Virus Impact By Hiking Taxes

Allegheny Institute For Public Policy: Estimating Lost Turnpike Revenue From Virus Lockdown

PA Hospitals Say Coronavirus Killing Them Financially, State Must Become Better Partner

Allegheny Health Network, Highmark Health Announce 380 Layoffs

            Gaming Revenues Plunge

On May 18, the PA Gaming Control Board reported overall gaming revenue was down 84 percent in April compared to April 2019 as a result of COVID-19 closures.  Tax revenue from all forms of gaming in April 2020 was $18,334,503.

April revenue for online casino-type games which include slot machines, table games and poker jumped 73 percent over the previous month of March 2020. The biggest increase was within the slot machine segment in which revenue more than doubled going from $12,969,655 in March to $27,324,955 in April. Read more here.

            The Board also issued guidance for reopening casino facilities in the Green Phase of Gov. Wolf’s reopening plan.  The casinos will look and operate much differently than they normally do following those guidelines.  Read more here.

            COVID-19 Death Toll

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 4,418 on May 17 to 5,139 on May 25. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 62,234 on May 17 to 68,186 on May 25.

            April Unemployment 15.1%

On May 22, the Department of Labor & Industry reported Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was up 9.3 percentage points over the month to 15.1 percent in April. The national rate rose 10.3 percentage points from March to 14.7 percent.

The Commonwealth’s unemployment rate increased by 11.0 percentage points from April 2019, while the national rate was up 11.1 points over the year.  Read more here.

As of May 21, a total of 1,914,741 Pennsylvanians have filed for unemployment since March 15, the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.  That number is up 60,017 from May 15.

            What’s Next?

The House is scheduled to be in session on May 26 and 27 next week, but technically the House remains at the call of the House Speaker.

The key vote next week will no doubt be on concurrent House Resolution 836 (Diamond-R-Lebanon) providing for the termination of Gov. Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster emergency declaration followed by votes on bills to open a variety of other businesses.

House Committees have informational meetings or hearings set on how to safely reopen schools, funding for day care centers and COVID-19 impacts on agriculture.

The Senate is now scheduled to be in session May 26, 27, 28, but remains at the Call of President Pro Tempore.

As noted above, action has been scheduled on House-sponsored budget bills.

The Senate Republican Policy Committee also has an informational meeting scheduled on safely reopening western Pennsylvania’s economy.

The Senate Democratic Policy Committee has a hearing scheduled on child care center funding.


Click Here For A Week’s Worth Of Political NewsClips

Click Here For PA Coronavirus NewsClips

Click Here For A Week’s Worth Of Environment & Energy NewsClips

TAP HERE for all articles in May 26 EXPRESS Update